When he drove up to his former home, that afternoon, he stopped his car abruptly at the foot of the hill. He had not seen the house since that May 15, six months ago, when he had walked out of it--and the sight brought back to him the sum of all he had felt in ten years of daily home-coming: the strain, the bewilderment, the gray weight of unconfessed unhappiness, the stern endurance that forbade him to confess it, the desperate innocence of the effort to understand his family...the effort to be just.
He walked slowly up the path toward the door. He felt no emotion, only the sense of a great, solemn clarity. He knew that this house was a monument of guilt--of his guilt toward himself. He had expected to see his mother and Philip; he had not expected the third person who rose, as they did, at his entrance into the living room: it was Lillian.
He stopped on the threshold. They stood looking at his face and at the open door behind him. Their faces had a look of fear and cunning, the look of that blackmail-through-virtue which he had learned to understand, as if they hoped to get away with it by means of nothing but his pity, to hold him trapped, when a single step back could take him out of their reach. They had counted on his pity and dreaded his anger; they had not dared consider the third alternative: his indifference. "What is she doing here?" he asked, turning to his mother, his voice dispassionately flat. "Lillian's been living here ever since your divorce," she answered defensively. "I couldn't let her starve on the city pavements, could I?"
The look in his mother's eyes was half-plea, as if she were begging him not to slap her face, half-triumph, as if she had slapped his. He knew her motive: it was not compassion, there had never been much love between Lillian and her, it was their common revenge against him, it was the secret satisfaction of spending his money on the wife he had refused to support. Lillian's head was poised to bow in greeting, with the tentative hint of a smile on her lips, half-timid, half-brash. He did not pretend to ignore her; he looked at her, as if he were seeing her fully, yet as if no presence were being registered in his mind. He said nothing, closed the door and stepped into the room.
His mother gave a small sigh of uneasy relief and dropped hastily into the nearest chair, watching him, nervously uncertain whether he would follow her example.
"What was is you wanted?" he asked, sitting down.
His mother sat erect and oddly hunched, her shoulders raised, her head half-lowered. "Mercy, Henry," she whispered.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you understand me?"
"Well"--she spread her hands in an untidily fluttering gesture of helplessness--"Well..." Her eyes darted about, struggling to escape his attentive glance. "Well, there are so many things to say and...and I don't know how to say them, but...well, there's one practical matter, but it's not important by itself...it's not why I called you here..."
"What is it?"
"The practical matter? Our allowance checks--Philip's and mine. It's the first of the month, but on account of that attachment order, the checks couldn't come through. You know that, don't you?"
"I know it."
"Well, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know."
"I mean, what are you going to do about it?"
His mother sat staring at him, as if counting the seconds of silence.
"I have no power to do anything."
They were watching his face with a kind of searching intensity; he felt certain that his mother had told him the truth, that immediate financial worry was not their purpose, that it was only the symbol of a much wider issue.
"But, Henry, we're caught short."
"So was I."
"But can't you send us some cash or something?"
"They gave me no warning, no time to get any cash."
"Then...Look, Henry, the thing was so unexpected, it scared people, I guess--the grocery store refuses to give us credit, unless you ask for it. I think they want you to sign a credit card or something. So will you speak to them and arrange it?"
"I will not."
"You won't?" She choked on a small gasp. "Why?"
"I will not assume obligations that I can't fulfill."
"What do you mean?"
"I will not assume debts I have no way of repaying."
"What do you mean, no way? That attachment is only some sort of technicality, it's only temporary, everybody knows that!"
"Do they? I don't."
"But, Henry--a grocery bill! You're not sure you'll be able to pay a grocery bill, you, with all the millions you own?"
"I'm not going to defraud the grocery by pretending that I own those millions."
"What are you talking about? Who owns them?"
"What do you mean?"
"Mother, I think you understand me fully. I think you understood it before I did. There isn't any ownership left in existence or any property. It's what you approved of and believed in for years. You wanted me tied. I'm tied. Now it's too late to play any games about it."
"Are you going to let some political ideas of yours--" She saw the look on his face and stopped abruptly.
Lillian sat looking down at the floor, as if afraid to glance up at this moment. Philip sat cracking his knuckles.
His mother dragged her eyes into focus again and whispered, "Don't abandon us, Henry." Some faint stab of life in her voice told him that the lid of her real purpose was cracking open. "These are terrible times, and we're scared. That's the truth of it, Henry, we're scared, because you're turning away from us. Oh, I don't mean just that grocery bill, but that's a sign--a year ago you wouldn't have let that happen to us. Now...now you don't care." She made an expectant pause. "Do you?"